The rehearsals begin in a studio directly beneath the roof of Clark Hall, where you would expect to find nothing more than an attic. It’s a bare, rectangular space, with a sloping ceiling, a hardwood floor and rows of windows on three sides; the only furnishings are a small table and a scattering of chairs. But as the days pass, the room takes on some of the characteristics of a stage. Props arrive—a lantern, a pair of binoculars, an ax. Winding strips of tape appear on the floor, indicating the future contours of a set. It’s all mapped out: where actors will pretend to step onto a ridge in an old-growth forest, where they will have to make their way around a Douglas fir.
The show taking shape here is named for a woodland creature, albeit an imaginary one. Betty the Yeti: An Eco-Fable, by Jon Klein, received its world premiere in 1994. On one level, it’s a political play, addressing an issue—wilderness preservation—as relevant now as it was 20 years ago. But it’s also a comedy with absurd and fanciful elements, including a mysterious beast whose right to protection as an endangered species becomes a point of contention.
A revival of Betty the Yeti opened the 2013-14 season at Eldred Theater, the home of Case Western Reserve’s undergraduate theater program. Every year, the program mounts four productions, directed by faculty members or guest artists, in which students assume a variety of creative and technical roles. They are the actors, stage managers and sound designers. They run the lights, sew the costumes and hammer together the sets. The primary aim of all this activity is educational; it gives students a chance to learn every aspect of theater. But at the end of the process, Professor and Artistic Director Jerrold Scott points out, an audience is waiting. The show must open on schedule. And the world of the play must be as fully realized as everyone involved can make it.
In early September, less than three weeks before opening night, Tanaquil Marquez is rehearsing the first scene of Betty the Yeti with fellow senior Eliana Fabiyi. Marquez is playing Clare, the owner of a logging operation in western Oregon; Fabiyi is Iko, a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. As the scene begins, Marquez is peering through binoculars, but Scott, who’s directing this production, notices she isn’t holding them correctly. She admits she has never used binoculars before.
To the other actors, her confession seems as surprising and comical as the play itself, and they allow themselves some merriment at her expense. But Marquez remains unruffled. “I was never in the Girl Scouts!” she tells them. After Fabiyi gives her some pointers, she walks to a window, lifts the binoculars to her face again and looks out at the trees on the Mather quad. The ribbing continues for a while, but it’s the kind that occurs among friends.
The play has only six roles, and the actors who have landed them—theater majors all—are at ease as an ensemble. Most have taken classes together and appeared in previous mainstage productions. They have also acted, directed or designed sets for smaller shows in Eldred’s black box theater. Several are active in IMPROVment, an improvisational comedy troupe that gives more than 40 performances a year. Their varied experiences in the theater, and their comfort level with one another, give them confidence as they take on the challenges this show presents.
“Betty the Yeti is an interesting play, because it requires a very delicate walk in how the actors play the roles,” Scott says. “If they are too absurd, the argument of the play loses its resonance. But if they go too far the other way and allow the play to become a political treatise, they lose the joy and the fun of the comedy. So it’s always a delicate balance.”
As Scott and the actors delve into the script, much of their talk focuses on the relationships between the characters. Clare, who regards the old-growth forest as so much timber, has one ally as the action begins—an ace logger named Russ (Thomas Burke). Until recently, he was both her employee and her son-in-law. But regulations protecting the habitats of endangered species have cost him his job, and his marriage to Clare’s daughter, Terra (Elizabeth Huddleston), is in ruins. Appalled by the damage already inflicted on the forest, Terra has become an environmentalist. She’s left her husband and taken up with a man Clare calls “a green freak,” a ponytailed activist named Trey (Jason Sleisenger). The clashes between these characters, involving ordinary human feelings as well as the fate of the earth, only intensify once the yeti (Sara Bogomolny) makes her appearance.
Beginning at 6 each evening, the actors arrive and tackle the play scene by scene. Scott looks on as they rehearse, laughing at certain lines as if he’s never heard them before, often interrupting to pose a question or make a point. He asks the cast to recognize what the characters have at stake at each moment, to imagine their inner conflicts and the things they leave unsaid. And each new insight contributes to the process of shaping a performance.
Sometimes, Scott tells the actors exactly what he wants—a pause, a gesture, an inflection. At other times, he invites them to explore alternatives. Like the actors, he, too, is maintaining a delicate balance.
“I think the most important thing in a director is coming in with a vision and being completely confident about that vision,” says Fabiyi, who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London during her junior year. “If the director doesn’t know what he wants out of the play, then no one will, and it will dissolve into chaos.” On the other hand, she pays tribute to Scott for guiding her, not dictating, as she refined her approach to her role.
“I’ve often been cast as either a little kid or as a wacky character,” Fabiyi explains. “Iko is one of my first really grown-up and normal characters—she’s the straight man to everyone else’s wackiness. So I really had to tone down my silliness. Jerry was trying to get that from me without saying it outright, so that I could find it myself. And I think I finally came around to what he wanted me to be.”
The actors also develop their parts by reacting to one another. Huddleston says this is especially true as she rehearses her scenes with Burke. Because they play an estranged couple, their dialogue bristles with reproaches and stinging retorts.
“The dynamics between us keep changing,” says Huddleston, who has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre School. “Tom, a couple of nights back, found a different reading on a line that had been really accusatory before, but also a little bit wounded. So my response to that line was very different, too. Once we get into performance, there are all kinds of surprises.”
Gradually, the actors disappear into their characters, adopting mannerisms and facial expressions quite distinct from their natural ones. As Clare, Marquez acquires an assertive stride and a gruff, belligerent voice. Burke devises a repertoire of hand gestures to communicate with the yeti. As Trey, Sleisenger seems to direct some of his lines not to the characters around him, but to a gallery of admirers only he can see.
Bogomolny, in the title role, must define her character almost entirely through movement; the yeti does not speak. And so, early in the rehearsal process, she works with a movement specialist, Visiting Assistant Professor Christopher Bohan, who invites her to imagine the creature’s life in the wild.
Bohan gives Bogomolny a series of prompts: “Have some fun chasing a rabbit around and scaring it. Look at the full moon. Find your way back home and go to sleep. Let something in your dream startle you and scare you awake.” With each scenario, the actor confronts an array of choices. How apelike will the yeti’s gait be? How will she use her hands? The session also includes breathing and vocalization exercises. No one has ever heard a yeti; what will her growl sound like?
Later, Bogomolny receives additional coaching from Ron Wilson, the department chair and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Professor of Theater. He offers advice about her first entrance, when the yeti approaches a tent Russ has pitched in a clearing.
“I had been creeping onstage very slowly,” Bogomolny recalls. “A real animal instinct might be to do just that—to come on very slowly and tentatively or cautiously. But Ron suggested that I hop onstage.” That way, her entrance would startle the audience and make the scene “pop.” Bogomolny says that Wilson was reminding her of an important lesson: “As an actor, it’s my creative license to present myself and my character with a sense of theatricality.”
Eight days before the opening, the rehearsals move from Clark Hall to Eldred’s main stage. The set is a work in progress. A few wooden panels, painted to look like stretches of cloudy sky, are suspended against the back wall, but others haven’t been installed yet. Platforms representing higher ground are anchored to the floor. Descending lengths of brown fabric evoke the trunks of distant trees.
Creating trees for the foreground was the greatest challenge for Assistant Professor Jill Davis, resident scenic and lighting designer, and Adjunct Lecturer Homer Farr, technical director and scene shop foreman. The forest in this play must be easy to dismantle. At the end of Act I, Clare wrangles permission to cut down the old growth before an environmental lawsuit can stop her. And so, during intermission, everything except the Douglas fir must come down.
Davis solved the problem by making the trees out of commercial fishing nets. Onstage, they look like towers of macramé—nothing like a literal forest, but ideal for a fable. The nets hang from hooks too high for the audience to see; at their base are wooden rounds that will later serve as stumps. At intermission, tech crew member Zachary Leibell, a theater and physics major, will appear onstage wielding a mock chain saw. One by one, the nets will be released from their hooks, drop to the ground and be cleared away.
Their first night in Eldred, the actors run through the entire play. Navigating the actual set—the trees, the platforms, a fallen log where characters sometimes sit down—is harder than the audience may realize. Before the actors block out all their movements, they will sometimes upstage one another, exit in the wrong direction or brush against a shaft of netting. (“Don’t bring the tree down,” Scott says one night. “That will make Jill cry.”) And now that they’ve left the studio, their voices have to carry, especially from the back of the stage, where Russ’ tent stands beside an artificial campfire.
The actors will experience several milestones on their journey to opening night. There’s the first time they perform the play in costume—Bogomolny in fur and face paint, Sleisenger in a wig that provides him with Trey’s ponytail. Then there’s a marathon tech rehearsal—10 hours on a Sunday, working out sound and light cues and all the logistics of the production.
If these students were in a professional company, this show would be their full-time job. As it is, when they leave the tech rehearsal at 10 p.m., they head off to the library to prepare for exams or write papers. At Case Western Reserve, undergraduates majoring in theater, music or dance have academic schedules as demanding as anyone else’s. They are not earning a specialized fine arts degree; instead, they must fulfill all the requirements for a bachelor’s degree.
In addition, many performance students are double majors. Among the cast members in Betty the Yeti, Burke is completing a second major in economics, Fabiyi in anthropology, Huddleston in psychology and Marquez in Spanish. To Fabiyi, this is one of the program’s strengths. “Students take what they learn outside and apply it to their characters and apply it to their method,” she explains. “It makes for really great theater here.”
With the tech rehearsal behind them, the actors start doing a run-through every night. Stage manager Paige Klopfenstein, a theater and nursing major, times each one down to the second. Shaving two minutes from Act I is a triumph; it means the show is surging forward, gathering comic momentum. After each performance, Scott addresses the cast, offering a medley of praise, advice and instructions. Up to the last minute, there will be tiny adjustments to every facet of the show, including the music between scenes and the arrangement of props. Assistant Professor Angelina Herin, resident costume designer and costume shop manager, will tinker throughout the final week with the quantity and color of the fur around the yeti’s face.
With only a few nights to go, Timothy Koch (CWR ’08), one of Scott’s former students, drops by to watch a rehearsal. He’s on campus for Homecoming Weekend, during which he’s been honored as one of the university’s outstanding young alumni. Koch has worked as an assistant director on two Broadway shows; last spring, he served as associate director of a London play featuring actress Judi Dench. Now, he takes a seat beside Scott a few rows from the back of the house. They whisper back and forth and often laugh at the same jokes.
In addition to studying directing with Scott, Koch appeared in several of his productions. During the run-through, he says later, he could see the hallmarks of his mentor’s style: “the crispness of the language, the drive of the text, the strength of the staging. Those are three things I always keep in mind when I’m directing my own work.” He adds, “It’s great to be sitting next to him years later and still learning lessons even now.”
The Eldred premiere of Betty the Yeti nearly fills the house. As the 100 audience members take their seats, they hear a forest soundtrack—flowing water, cicadas, a spotted owl—mixed by Austin Kilpatrick, a theater and accounting major. The set has a dusky glow, courtesy of Maureen Patterson, guest lighting designer. Klopfenstein, along with the sound and light board operators, looks on from the control room, ready to give the first cues.
Opening night audiences are especially responsive, and the laughter at this performance begins before a single line is spoken. As the lights come up, Marquez is scrutinizing the trees through her binoculars, an exaggerated scowl on her face; at the sight of her, the students in the front rows start chortling. Her parents, who are actors themselves, are in the audience, and for the first 30 seconds of the play, her own mother doesn’t know her.
The performance is sharper and more spirited than any of the rehearsals. All at once, Scott says afterward, it was as if the actors found the play.
“Sometimes, the stars have to align,” he explains. “The actors have to be in the right place, emotionally and spiritually. They have to be rested and not hungry. Their homework has to be done. For whatever reason, opening night, all the pieces went click. Everybody knew what they wanted and how they were going to get it, and they were in sync with their partners. It was a lovely, lovely show. I was very proud.”
The production kept evolving for the rest of the run. There were six performances altogether, and the actors say the best was a Sunday matinee. But they all remember the distinctive energy of opening night, the way that everything came together, the moments of surprise.
“I wouldn’t have expected some of our characters’ reactions to Betty—little throwaway gestures—to be so funny to the audience,” Burke says. “You worry sometimes that no one sees or notices some of the stuff you do onstage. So when people respond, you feel validated. You recognize there’s a purpose for all your hard work, that it has a value within the play.”